05/02/2012 02:23 EDT | Updated 07/02/2012 05:12 EDT

Saskatchewan launches review to overhaul all labour laws; unions concerned

REGINA - The Saskatchewan government is launching a massive overhaul of its labour laws and unions are raising concerns.

One area up for review is union dues and whether people should be allowed to opt out of paying them for reasons such as financial hardship or if they're a student.

"We're saying from a statutory basis, we raise the issue whether there should be an ability for somebody not to pay...and what the circumstances might be," Labour Minister Don Morgan said at a news conference Wednesday.

"And we're not advocating or suggesting a particular set of circumstances. What we're saying is, we should have the discussion."

It's not clear if the province could make the change even if it wants too.

The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld the right of unions to collect dues from members and said people can only opt out of paying those dues on religious grounds. In those situations, the employee has to donate an amount equal to the union dues to charity.

The review will also look at who collects dues.

The government said in a consultation paper released Wednesday that it has heard from different groups that the Trade Union Act should not include a requirement for union dues to be collected by employers.

Unions said there are many problems with the proposed changes.

"Our strength is in numbers and working together as a union, as a collective. And when you have it all fragmented, that takes apart the whole system," said Terry Parker, with the Saskatchewan Building Trades Council.

"And by sort of crippling us, by taking away that funding, (it) will make us less able to be active in certain areas."

Parker also said unions don't want to go "onto job sites with a tin cup" to collect dues. There's less disruption in the workplace and the process is streamlined if employers collect dues and then transfer the money to unions, he said.

CUPE Saskatchewan president Tom Graham argued unionized workers get better representation and he said dues pay for that work.

"Collective bargaining costs money. Grievance handling costs money. I know there are issues around our political campaigns perhaps. Those are determined democratically. Unions are very democratic organizations," said Graham.

The union's position is clear, he said.

"If you're in a union, you pay your dues. It's as simple as that."

Graham also said he's concerned about the consultation process for the review and the plan to amalgamate several pieces of legislation.

Workplace and employment relationships are currently governed by 15 separate acts, such as the Trade Union Act, the Public Services Essential Services Act, the Labour Standards Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

The government said most of the acts have not been comprehensively reviewed in at least 20 years.

Essential services legislation that has been ruled unconstitutional will also be reviewed.

That legislation, introduced in December 2007, states employers and unions have to agree on which workers are so needed they cannot walk off the job. Unions were outraged, however, because the law also states that if the two sides can't agree, employers can dictate who is essential.

A Court of Queen's Bench judge ruled in February that the law goes too far because it infringes on the freedom of association of employees. Justice Dennis Ball said "no other essential services legislation in Canada comes close to prohibiting the right to strike as broadly, and as significantly."

But Ball upheld the principle of essential services and gave the government 12 months to fix the law.

The province is appealing the ruling.

Morgan said he doesn't think the consultation paper will further hurt the government's relationship with unions.

"The purpose of this is not to strain or exacerbate the relationship. The purpose of this is to raise questions so that we can have a fulsome, complete discussion and have things that go forward."

"We will work with organized labour. We will work with business groups. We will work with public sector employers to try and do the best possible job."

Submissions will be taken until July 31 and recommendations for legislation are expected this fall.